High expression of the ETS family transcription factor ERG is associated with poor clinical outcome in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL). In murine models, high ERG expression induces both T-ALL and AML. However, no study to date has defined the effect of high ERG expression on primary human hematopoietic cells. In the present study, human CD34+ cells were transduced with retroviral vectors to elevate ERG gene expression to levels detected in high ERG AML. RNA sequencing was performed on purified populations of transduced cells to define the effects of high ERG on gene expression in human CD34+ cells. Integration of the genome-wide expression data with other data sets revealed that high ERG drives an expression signature that shares features of normal hematopoietic stem cells, high ERG AMLs, early T-cell precursor-ALLs and leukemic stem cell signatures associated with poor clinical outcome. Functional assays linked this gene expression profile to enhanced progenitor cell expansion. These results support a model whereby a stem cell gene expression network driven by high ERG in human cells enhances the expansion of the progenitor pool, providing opportunity for the acquisition and propagation of mutations and the development of leukemia. © 2015 Macmillan Publishers Limited.